A very close shave…
A very close shave…
It’s 12 noon on a balmy summer afternoon and we’re standing in the gardens of Holyrood Palace, The Queen’s Scottish home from home. The atmosphere is electric, tea and cucumber sandwiches are flowing, and we’re in great company. Milling everywhere are immaculately groomed teen girls and an attendant cast of similarly aged and sartorially tailored lads. Everyone, it seems, has made an effort to look good. And quite rightly so; we’re in the company of Liz’s hubby, the controversial - but certainly never dull - Prince Philip, and it‘s Duke Of Edinburgh Award time.
To say we’re excited is an understatement. We’re actually co-hosting the glittering ceremony and our role is to dispense DoE badges to an utterly selfless coterie, all of whom have made a difference to the lives of others via charitable work, achievement in sport or simply care in the community.
But anyway, back to Liz's squeeze. To Pip. Aye, he's quite the guy: a spirited nonagenarian with a frequent inability to keep his gob shut (we won‘t give credence to his gaffs by mentioning them individually) he’s making a wonderful effort to engage each and every youngster to whom he’s introduced. One of our Mums (Justin’s) has also been invited and she’s looking forward to catching up with His Royal Highness, having met him previously as part of a welcoming committee when the Royal Yacht Britannia berthed at Fort William in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Curiously, Britannia would sail again to the forefront of our thoughts by the end of the afternoon. But more of that shortly…
As the spirited Prince works the crowd, we prepare for our own introduction. Approaching, Philip is all smiles, flanked by his equiree and several local dignitaries. Sliding through the mass of expectant faces he finally draws to our side, his princely peepers darting between both of us and Mum. Pausing, a wry look settling upon his characterful face, his eyes light up like a hungry kid in a candy store. A small grin creeps across royal lips but then, as we prepare for whatever he might say, his smile broadens, Cheshire Cat like, and his eyes start to dance. He winks at us and we hold our breath.
We’re introduced by an equiree, and Philip’s eyes flit again, first between us and then, warmly, in Mum‘s direction. OMG. What is coming? Two seconds feel like two minutes. We’ll paraphrase (as we weren’t carrying our Dictaphones) but here’s the gist. To Mum: ‘Thank you so much for being here.” Mum stretches out a white gloved hand and is returned a firm shake as polite talk ensues. Attention eventually switches back to us as HRH announces: “I’ve met young men like you before.” Yay! Is he flattering us? Young? As his words dance in the air his impish grin widens even further and, as his eyes narrow like a lion preparing to pounce on its prey, he adds: “How do you do?” The words ‘how do we do what?’ almost tumble forth but we self sensor, opting instead for: “Very well, thank you, Your Highness. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” But we’re both thinking the same. He’s met ‘boys like us’ before? Where, for the love of Royal protocol, is this going? OMG. All eyes are trained on Philip.
“Your choice,” purrs the Queen’s husband, “is becoming very popular.” We’re thinking ‘spit it out and get it over with’ but before our brains can convert thoughts to words Philip deals another card. “I, personally, don’t understand it, but of course you should do precisely as you wish”. Oh, for the love of Lady Ga Ga and all things camp, are we now royal ‘sport‘? Both of us, in silent trepidation, wait for the Royal Richter to go off its scale. “Boys like us?” we counter, nervously. “Yes”, smiles our liege, as he peers in ever closer. “Just as I thought when I saw you. More and more of you all the time.” By now everyone is on tenterhooks, waiting for the next delivery from the Royal male. “More and more of us?” we chorus, discomfort settling like a massive concrete block.
The Prince chortles, winks again, then says: “It wouldn’t really work for me, but of course each to their own.” We look to Mum who, like us, is waiting nervously for the resolution of this royal ‘observation’. “And clearly your number is growing.” Hellls bells, put us out of our misery. “Unshaven men, that is. Yes, stubble seems very fashionable these days.” Blimey! Philip’s words release the pressure like a huge steamer popping it’s lid mid boil. “Ah, we wondered what you meant, what with your references to personal choice and all. We thought you, eh, we thought you meant, em…” One of us cuts the other off (its seems the best thing to do, for all concerned) by thanking Mr Queen for taking the time to come to Scotland and for supporting our young achievers.
Conversation normalising, the Prince explains that he adores Scotland while enthusing that this award ceremony is a fondly anticipated annual commitment. He reminds us of his various attachments to Edinburgh and in particular to the fact his former - mobile - holiday home, The Royal Yacht Britannia, is berthed here. So, while we mightn’t share a love of facial hair, we share an affection for the beautiful bateau and assure Philip we’ll pop by soon to pay the grand ship his warmest respects.
As the day draws to a timely conclusion, and after we’ve awarded each of the hard working youths a medal, we bundle Mum into our Range Rover, and head off home to sunny Glasgow. The very next weekend we drive back East to visit Britannia, still giggling about the way in which the Prince kept us on our toes, in anticipation of a royal gaffe which didn‘t materialise. He’s clearly a clever, if not always politically correct old fella and, as we step aboard the yacht he once called home, we wonder about the colourful discussions that surely took place as he discussed the merits of the people with whom he engaged during his global journeys.
So, shall we tell you a little of Britannia’s history? No problem. Launched by the Queen in 1953, Ship Number 691 was never, by design, an overly ostentatious concern. Philips wife hoped to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the country houses she so admired and in conjunction with architect Sir Hugh Casson, she set to work. Against a backdrop of brass work, multiple timber genus and cool colours, she added chintz, gold detailing and simplistic furnishings to build a floating home that would stay with the royal family for over 40 years.
During the time that Britannia "ruled the waves", she conducted 968 royal and official visits and played a leading role in some of history’s most defining moments. To the royal family she was the perfect residence for official receptions, relaxing holidays and several royal honeymoons. For Princesses Margaret and Anne and Princes Charles and Andrew, Britannia provided the ideal escape after vows had been taken. As an impenetrable shield for those aboard, Britannia was not only promoter, but also protector, of the world’s most famous family.
At Britannia’s stern sits a room reported to be one of the Queen's favourites. In this simple sun lounge, blue striped fabric, teak flooring and bamboo combine to create a relaxed environment. Adjacent to this lies the Queen's bedroom where floral bedspreads, 1950s furniture and embroidery elicit a comfortable, understated feel. The Duke of Edinburgh's bedroom is linked to HM's by a connecting door and while similar in size, darker wooden furnishings and plainer fabrics proffer a more masculine aesthetic. The "corridor" walls that connect these rooms are lined with photographs. In one shot, a young Andrew and Charles smile broadly in their mother's arms, but the most intoxicating images are surely those which feature the world's most photographed woman; Diana. But here she’s simply a young mother, smiling and carefree, playing with her "wonderful boys".
Touring the yacht, there exists a tangible feeling of what has gone before. It’s strange to think that the desk in the Queen's sitting room is the same one at which La Lizzy sat, or that the phone is the same one that would have brushed the royal ear. And it's hard to believe that the bed on view in the honeymoon suite is the very one upon which Diana would have slept during the first weeks of her marriage to Charles. Yup, today, on board Britannia, history is here to be viewed.
Britannia’s decommissioning signalled the end of an era not only for the Windsor’s, but also for Britain. Her final royal duty was to bring home the lowered Union Flag from Hong Hong, the last Empire colony. While the colonies may no longer exist, Britannia has moved on to a new era as a modern museum providing a unique insight into royal life. Even port-bound and decommissioned, she is still a jewel in the ocean's crown.
So go visit! And gentleman: if you’re anywhere near Holyrood at DoE Awards time, just be sure to shave. Or prepare to face the friendly wrath of a royal whose clipped facial razoring is no match for his ability to close shave the world of political correctness…
For more information, visit www.royalyachtbritannia.co.uk